Even Palestinian Authority's Prosecutor-General, Attorney Fayez Abu-Rahama who began his job only a few weeks ago, is still in shock over by the lightning trial of the three murderers of Jerusalem taxi driver, the late Shmuel Ben Baruch. It will be recalled that two of them were sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor, and the third, a minor, received 15 years.
Abu-Rahama, whose position parallels Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein, admits that he is not an expert in the secrets of the military courts which Yasser Arafat constantly establishes and closes. "As a Palestinian jurist, I am ashamed by what happened last week in Jericho," he says. "I do not understand how trials of this kind can take place, without my knowledge as prosecutor-general. No-one bothered to inform me, either before the trial or afterwards."
Abu-Rahama, who previously served as Chairman of the Gaza Bar Association, expresses great doubts if justice was done at this trial. "How is it possible to sentence three men so harshly in less than half an hour? What will they say about us around in the world? I have no doubt that this is an unprecedented scandal."
A review of the trial's preparations, and the trial itself, show that Abu-Rahama's words are very close to the truth. Palestinian lawyers call the trial of the three murderers, "the shortest trial in history."
Early Saturday morning, Colonel Jibril Rajoub, commander of the Palestinian Security Service in the West Bank, called Arafat's office to brief him on the case of the murdered taxi driver, whose body was found a few hours earlier in a well in the Akvat Jabar refugee camp near Jericho. "What was the motive for murdering the driver?" Arafat wanted to know. Rajoub explained to the chairman that his men had arrested three young men who were known to be car thieves, and that they had already confessed to kidnapping and murdering the Israeli driver. The three men even pointed out the site where they hid Ben-Baruch's body, saying that the motive was merely criminal. When Arafat heard this, he ordered Rajoub to bring the three before a military court within hours.
Already by Saturday afternoon, Rajoub's investigators brought the three suspects to a room which would serve as an impromptu courtroom, inside the Palestinian Police headquarters in Jericho (previously Elhanan Camp). "They admitted everything," said one of security officers, then added: "I do not even understand why they have to waste all this time on trying the three of them." The officer gave Jericho Military Prosecutor Ahmad al-Bashtawi the investigation file that included the confessions of the three murderers: Abed al-Nasr Razik, Ala Damanhouri and Iyad Awajana.
About one hour before the trial began, Palestinian security forces -- on the orders of Chairman Arafat, of course -- alerted two policemen, law school graduates of an Arab country, and an additional officer who lacked a legal background. The three, Amin Tahaboub, Majdi Taher and Mahmoud Kare'in, were asked to be the military judges at the trial, whose outcome nobody doubted. After the three impromptu judges heard a "lecture" from prosecutor al-Bashtawi, they ordered -- less than 15 minutes after the start of the trial -- the three suspects to stand up to hear their sentences: "Life sentence with hard labor for Damanhouri and Razik, and 15 years imprisonment for Awajana, since he is a minor."
This script surprised no one, neither among the Palestinians nor the Israeli government. It is clear that such lightning trials have become the norm for a long time now in the Palestinian Authority's judicial system. It is all in order to find an appropriate response to the Oslo Accords, which state that criminals are not to be extradited to the Israeli authorities if they have already been tried by the Palestinian Authority. Until today, no one knew by what criteria Arafat's military courts operated, or how judges are appointed, what their qualifications -- if any -- are, and why, in most cases, the defendants are not represented by an attorney.
Abu-Rahama is not the only one who has criticized the Palestinian judicial system. Other lawyers have also sharply criticized this judicial system, but they have refused to be named for fear of the steps which the Palestinian Authority is liable to take against them. Even former judges, who were appointed and dismissed by Arafat, are afraid to publicly express their opinions on this issue. Intellectuals, writers and civil rights activists are also filling their mouths with seawater. They have all learned that only one man represents the Palestinian judicial system: Yasser Arafat. He is judge, prosecutor and defense counsel, and, if necessary, he is above the law.
This lesson was personally learned by attorney Marwan al-Hatib of Ramallah. Last year, al-Hatib was asked to represent ten students from Bir Zeit University who had been arrested by the Palestinian police in Ramallah, on the suspicion of belonging to Hamas. Attorney al-Hatib accepted the request and initiated proceedings to represent the ten. First, he asked to know under what section of the penal code they had been arrested, and to his shock he discovered that they were being held in prison on telephone orders from a senior commander in Force 17, Yasser Arafat's presidential security apparatus. All of the young attorney's attempts to meet with his clients failed.
Al-Hatib did not hesitate, and at the suggestion of one of his colleagues, he gathered his courage and took an unusual step, which bordered on risking his life. He appealed to the Palestinian High Court of Justice (yes, it seems that there is such a thing) in Ramallah, hoping that there would be found the lost justice. The appeal was submitted on behalf of his clients against the Palestinian Authority's interior minister, a post held by none other than Yasser Arafat himself, and against the Authority's previous prosecutor-general, Haled al-Kidra. The three judges, responsible for all civil matters, answered the appeal, and issued a restraining order instructing the interior minister and prosecutor-general to justify within a few days why the ten detainees -- apparently being held against the law -- had not been released.
After a few days, attorney al-Hatib returned to the courthouse to find out how the interior minister and prosecutor-general had responded to the order. He felt a strange silence upon entering the building. Finally, he encountered a guard whom he asked about his request. When al-Hatib told him his name, the guard burst out laughing, and told him: "Go look for the judges at home. They have been fired and placed under house arrest for insolence and for daring to issue a restraining order against His Excellency, the President of the State of Palestine."
Until the outbreak of the intifada, the civil courts operated on all matters in the territories. The Civil Administration supervised the completely independent judicial system. A court system of this type operated in almost all the major cities, which used the Israel Police to implement its decisions. Israeli military courts operated, mainly in security cases alongside these courts, which acted in accordance with the Jordanian Legal Code, which is still valid in the territories.
Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority some four years ago, Arafat has seized control of the civil courts, appointing his own men as judges. To the post of justice minister, the chairman appointed a mediocre lawyer from Gaza, Farih Abu-Medein, who had been one of his close supporters. Last month, Abu-Medein announced that he is fed up with what he calls "the chaos" in the Palestinian judicial system, and submitted his resignation to Arafat. He wished to protest the appointment of attorney Fayez Abu-Rahama to the post of the Authority's prosecutor-general, without his knowledge. In a country of law, Abu-Medein would have been one of those responsible for this appointment, but in the case of Abu-Rahama, not only was the supervising minister not consulted, but Arafat did not even bother to inform him of the fact, and he learned of the appointment through the media. Despite the resignation of the justice minister, Arafat did nothing to fix the disarray which has been created in the Palestinian judicial system.
But this is not the only problem in the Palestinian judicial system. Stories have recently spread about bribes which judges receive from litigants, corruption with the goal of influencing verdicts, and detainees being released in return for bribes. Thus, for example, the previous prosecutor-general of the Palestinian Authority, Haled Abu-Kidra, who was dismissed from his post, is suspected of receiving tens of thousands of shekels from detainees' families in exchange for their release.
In eastern Jerusalem these days, another scandal involving the Palestinian courts is being talked about. One of the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council submitted to the Palestinian court in Bethlehem a petition to evict protected tenants and shopkeepers from properties owned by his family in eastern Jerusalem Because of his connections and status, the Palestinian representative "won" his petition and even secured the use of a large force of Palestinian police to evict the tenants.
In another case in Ramallah, the story is told of a judge who invites litigants who appear in his court to his home in the evening for a "shortened legal procedure" over a cup of coffee. Of course, the judge takes an additional payment for the "service". "What occurs in our courts is a great foul-up," a well-known Ramallah lawyer claimed last week. "We are simply disgracing our job and the entire justice system," he added.
The main reason for the lightning trials is, as has been noted, Arafat's desire to avoid extraditing Palestinians to Israel. According to the agreement between Israel and the Authority, Arafat is obliged to extradite any Palestinian who commits a crime against an Israeli and has not been tried. Therefore, Arafat constantly establishes new military courts to hold lightning trials. There are no lack of examples of the "revolving door" policy, where the same Palestinians sentenced in these lightning trials are released after a short time in prison (see accompanying article).
The main Palestinian court establishment which operates the lightning trials is the military-security establishment. The court that deals with this matter is the Supreme State Security Court.
This court was established in February 1995, by a residential order from Yasser Arafat. The court has neither a permanent venue, nor permanent judges. The only standard by which it operates is the desire of Chairman Yasser Arafat. The court's judges -- who are appointed sometimes for one day only -- know what sentence is expected from them in every case. In most instances, this court is established after a terrorist attack or other act of sabotage against Israel.
Almost all civil rights organizations, whether Palestinian, Israeli or international, have sharply criticized Arafat's justice system, but so far, he has not taken any action to improve the situation, and continues to thumb his nose at international conventions and even the laws found in the Palestinian Covenant, acting like an all-powerful dictator.
At the end of last year, Amnesty International published an extremely sharp report on the activities of the Palestinian State Security Court. "The Palestinian State Security Court's procedures do not meet the minimal standards for fair justice as determined by international humanitarian law," states the report. "This court holds its deliberations in secret, sometimes in the middle of the night. The deliberations are very short, sometimes only a few minutes, during which the charges are read, the trial is conducted and the verdict and sentence are given."
"The Palestinian Authority does not inform the accused of their trial date or the venue in advance. They are usually brought from their cells in the middle of the night. The families o the accused also do not receive notice on the content of the charges, or the trial date. They usually hear about the trial and its result through the media. These procedures show that the Palestinian judicial system does not operate as a proper judicial system, and that it has not been able to maintain its independence, as well as the absence of appeals. The accused are not given the opportunity to defend themselves, as is accepted in proper judicial systems. Their right to fair representation is denied, and they are not given sufficient time to prepare their defense."
Arafat uses this court not only as a tool to avoid extraditing murderers and terrorists to Israel, but also against people whom he believes could endanger his rule. Thus, for example, Palestinian human rights activists who dared criticize the State Security Court's activities, very quickly found themselves behind bars on Arafat's orders. Two of them, Dr. Iyad Alsaraj and Muhammad Dahman, were arrested and brought before the State Security Court on the suspicion that they had criticized human rights violations in the Palestinian Authority areas. The two men were released in the wake of intense pressure by human rights organizations around the world.
A further example of judicial arbitrariness and Arafat's personal use of the courts occurred in August 1996 when three Palestinian naval officers were accused of executing a Fatah activist, Muhammad Jamil, from Nablus. The three were tried by the State Security Court, which convened in Jericho on Arafat's orders, and in less than two hours were sentenced to long prison terms.
The accused were not given the right to seek the aid of an attorney. Arafat ordered a military lawyer to be appointed for them, who was prevented from defending them during the trial, and even helped to frame them. In addition, no witnesses were called, nor was any evidence presented regarding motives. The court met two weeks later, with a different composition, in Nablus, and sentenced five men from Tul Karm to an extended term of imprisonment, for creating a public disturbance. The matter was about several people who were arrested during a demonstration against the Palestinian Authority which took place in the city. The decisions against the five men were based solely on confessions made under torture while in captivity. The court has not hesitated to hand down the death sentence several times. By the end of last year, seven people had been sentenced to death in quick trials, although the sentences have never been carried out.
Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani said this week that the agreements with the Palestinian Authority regarding the extradition of murderers to Israel must be renegotiated. Israel does not hide its displeasure over the stage-managed show presented by Arafat, and the question remains: when will Arafat realize that the distortion of justice is a dangerous weapon which is liable to turn on him like a boomerang?
Arafat's methods are regular: He gives instructions for punishments (sometimes ridiculous punishments in relation to the crime committed) to the same murderers and terrorists, in order to calm world opinion, and when the world forgets the events, he instructs them to be released. Following is a partial list of terrorists were sentenced to long prison terms by the Palestinian State Security Court, who walk around as free men today. The list was published by the "Peace Watch" organization, which follows violations of the [Oslo] Accords by the Palestinian Authority:
- Ra'ad Ahmad al-Atar, Hamas activist, wanted by Israel for involvement in the shooting incident at the Morag Junction, in which one soldier was killed and two were wounded. He was sentenced in April 1995 to two years in prison and released after only eight months.
- Muhammad Abu-Samalla, Hamas activist, wanted by Israel for his involvement in the same incident at the Morag Junction. In April 1995, he was sentenced to two years in prison; he was released after only eight months.
- Sa'id Salaam Abu-Musama, Hamas activist, a former leader of the organization's military wing, sentenced to three years imprisonment in May 1995 for incitement against Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Abu-Musama was released after serving only seven months.
- Abd al-Majid Dudin, Hamas activist, suspected of involvement in the preparation of the suicide bombing in Jerusalem in August 1995. He was sentenced that same month to 12 years imprisonment with hard labor for damaging the interests of the Palestinian people and the peace process. According to Peace Watch's sources, even though Dudin officially remains in prison in Jericho, he actually works as a jailer and is permitted freedom of movement in Jericho.
- Awad Silmi, Hamas activist, wanted for his involvement in the murder of Lt.-Col. Meir Mintz. He agreed to be sent to prison in August 1995 only after he was promised that he would be released. He was sentenced to five years on the charge that he intended to carry out a suicide attack in Israel, but was released in less than one month.
- Wa'al Salah Nasr, Hamas activist, agreed to be sent to prison in August 1995 only after he was promised that he would be released. In September 1995, he was sentenced to five years on the charge that intended to carry out a suicide attack in Israel, but was released in less than one month.
- Yosef al-Malhi, Hamas activist, wanted on the charge of the murder of Gil Revach and Shlomo Kafach. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in September 1995, but "escaped" from prison on 22 October, 1995.
- Osama Abu-Taha, Hamas activist, wanted for a series of murders, including Ehud Rut, Ilan Levy and Guy Ovadia, as well as complicity in additional shooting incidents against Israeli patrols. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in September 1995, but "escaped" from prison a month later.
- Jamal Abu-Rob, a member of the Black Panthers, sentenced in December 1995 on the charge of complicity in the kidnapping of Israeli policemen in Jenin. According to Peace Watch's sources, even though Abu-Rob is officially in prison, he actually was employed by the Palestinian security forces there.
- Ahmad Jamil Samarah, a member of the Black Panthers, sentenced in December 1995 on the charge of complicity in the kidnapping of Israeli policemen in Jenin. According to "Peace Watch's" sources, even though officially in prison, he is employed there by the Palestinian Security Forces.
- Samir Zacharna, a member of the Black Panthers, kidnapped two border policemen in Jenin. He was sentenced in December 1995 to five years imprisonment, but was released after a few months.
Back to ISRAEL REPORT September/October 1997 [|] Return to Home Page...